Lemieux says season-long pain isn't getting any better

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux said Tuesday he has had severe hip pain since training camp -- a problem not cured by surgery -- and he is uncertain how much he will be able to play during the rest of the season.

Despite sitting out for two months, Lemieux said the pain in his right hip is nearly as bad as when he was hurt in September. He also isn't certain if more surgery will help.

"Right now, we're still trying to find out where the pain is coming from, but it's difficult because there are tendons, ligaments and muscles involved and it's a tough area to pinpoint," said Lemieux, who had surgery Oct. 29. "Rest would certainly help, but there's not much time to rest."

Lemieux will play Wednesday against Los Angeles as the Penguins -- currently well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race -- begin a stretch of 24 games in 45 days. After that, he will decide his status from game to game.

"Obviously, I'd love to be 100 percent ... to be able to play every game," he said.

Lemieux feels the pain every time he raises his right leg, something a hockey player does countless times in a game.

Lemieux did not practice Monday or Tuesday after helping lead Canada to the Olympic gold medal, setting up a key goal in the title-clinching 5-2 victory Sunday over the United States. But he took a painkilling shot to play and, he said, "You can't keep doing that stuff forever."

He also got an injection just before getting 13 points in a four-game stretch a month ago.

"When I didn't have any pain, I was able to skate freely and do some of the things I'm used to," he said. "When the pain is there, especially with a leg injury or a hip injury, it really shows in your game."

The 36-year-old Lemieux said the pain became so bad during a five-game stretch just before the Olympics that he wasn't sure if he could play in Salt Lake City.

"It's difficult and frustrating," he said. "I don't see where it's going to improve that much over the next week or so ... a lot of times I played when I was 50, 60 percent and that's tough. But I'm going to do whatever I can to help my team get into the playoffs."

The Penguins' owner-player is one of the most popular athletes ever in Pittsburgh, so he was unpleasantly surprised when some fans criticized him for allegedly putting Team Canada and the Olympics above his own team.

"Obviously, I was very disappointed," he said. "If you look at my history over the years, I've always put the franchise first and that's not going to change in the future. I had one chance to play in the Olympics, and I took advantage of it and came out on top and that's what I wanted to do. ... It was all worth it to get the gold medal."

Now that he's back in the NHL, where the smaller rinks create more physical play and less open space for scorers than the bigger international surface, Lemieux realizes it will be even tougher for an injured player.

"I was very cautious about where I was going on the (Olympic) ice, being careful to not get caught too deep because I know it would have been tough for me to get back," he said. "I played more of a patient game, more of a defensive game.

"It will be a lot tougher with the NHL style, to fight through a lot of poking and grabbing, all that stuff in the neutral zone. In the Olympics, it was easier to skate because I never had a stick on me in the neutral zone and I was able to pick up some speed."

At least Lemieux will get some help when the Penguins' season resumes Wednesday. Martin Straka, one of the NHL's top five scorers last season, will return to play alongside Lemieux and Aleksey Morozov on the top line after being out since Oct. 28 with a broken leg.

Robert Lang will play on the second line with Jan Hrdina and Alexei Kovalev. Lang and Hrdina were on the Czech Olympic team and Kovalev played for bronze medalist Russia.

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